Catching History while you can

I enjoy dragging my family to historical places and museums.


Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about history. Who's story do we tell? Who's history do we memorialize?


Is history just the story of dead, rich, white men? Is it just the victors?


Until recently, it kinda was.


Today...it is not.



But does that mean we forget "that" history because it is not Politically Correct now?


Do we tear down our past heroes in order to build up others, and right perceived wrongs?


J and B at JP Morgan's grave

Unfortunately, we are doing just that.


That makes me sad. And a little angry.


Tearing down monuments and other pieces of our shared past are erasing history. We are erasing snapshots in time. What people thought then.


Obviously, those thoughts are different (and should be different) than today.


Those moments are just as important--it puts things in perspective; in context.


And I am all about context!


And that is important to remember.


So, I drag my family around to not only experience the history of great, dead, white men, but also the history of those who have been neglected.


We are lucky we live in a history rich area.


So, a few weekends ago, we ventured down to Hartford to learn more about the Amistad.


If you don't know the story, in 1839, a small coastal vessel, called La Amistad, created quite a ruckus. After leaving the slave markets in Cuba, the crew experienced a rebellion from the Africans who were on board. They took control, killed most of the crew and forced the remaining crew to head back to Africa. The Amistad is a small coastal vessel, not meant to travel the high seas. Whenever possible, the crew would turn the ship back westward, causing the ship to zig zag up the coast of North America. When the ship reached the east coast of Long Island, the Amistad was boarded by the US Navy. Not knowing what to do with the Africans, they were brought to Connecticut, until it could be determined just what to do with them.


Were they someone's property? Were they free?


After a long, drawn out, politically charged, international process, the Africans were freed. They returned to Africa in 1841.


In 1997, Steven Spielberg directed a movie called, Amistad, about the uprising. A replica of the ship was built at Mystic Seaport shortly after the movie was released in 2000, and has been used for educational purposes ever since.


For the past month, it has been docked in Hartford, Connecticut, where the first of several trials to free the Africans took place. The last trial was held at United States Supreme Court, with former President John Quincy Adams defending the Amistad Africans.


To walk upon its decks, the Amistad is frightening small. I can see where this would be considered a coastal vessel.


It is also hard to fathom how almost 50 people (not including the crew) could be housed below deck.

J and B with the Amistad

It probably would have been better to attend on the "Family Day", where there would have been reenactors to tell the tale, but knowing my boys, crowds are not their thing. And for B...history isn't his thing at all (as you can tell from the photo).


We talked about the importance of history. The importance of the stories that are passed down from generation to generation. How it is important to learn about other's history so we can better understand the present. So we never forget what has happened before.


Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. -George Santayana

Maybe it is because of the stories told to me by my great-grandparents--immigrants from Armenia at the beginning of the First World War--why I think it is so important to remember.


Their families were rounded up and marched into the desert during WWI by the Ottoman Turks. Most did not survive.


Maybe I just love to learn about the past--the good and the bad--and I want to share the common experience.


Or maybe I'm just a geek.


J and B at the Statue of Liberty

Whatever the reason, I will continue to drag my family to various historical places and events. They may hate it, but it is important.


We need to be more respectful of others experiences. We need to listen to others points of view (even more so if we disagree). We need to remember the past--all of it, and not erase it because it isn't pretty, or because it "triggers" an emotional response.


We need to remember context.


I want to experience the past emotionally. I want to (maybe) not like what I experience. It shouldn't be "warm and fuzzy". It should be as immersive as we can get without being dangerous.


I remember talking to my fellow graduate students when I was in Museum School. The Amistad movie had come out, and the Connecticut Historical Society had a good exhibit about the events. We discussed and evaluated the exhibit and talked about what we would change and what we would keep.


I suggested that the beginning of the exhibition should be in totally darkness (just a few feet), and all you could here was water sloshing against something, and chains rattling. I also recommended an unpleasant smell.


I suggested recreating life below decks on a slave ship.


I was told that was a little over the top. It would make people uncomfortable.


"Good," I said. "It should."


This was in 1999.


History is messy. And we should embrace the messiness!


Today, that suggestion may (or may not) be accepted either.


I am not trying to start a political discussion here. I am just suggesting that we should learn about all history, because when we begin to erase the parts of the past that make us uncomfortable, the likelihood that the very thing we are trying to forget will return.


Regardless, I encourage you all to go check out your local museum or historic site. Experience what is around you. If it makes you uncomfortable then good, because history should not be comfortable. It should make you think. It should make you feel. And maybe even be grateful for those we came before.


History is awesome!


All of it!


No matter what!


Now excuse me while the boys and I go watch Spielberg's Amistad movie.

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